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How the labor movement won the battle for the eight-hour day
The story of Haymarket

May 2, 2003 | Page 8

"THERE WILL come a time when our silence is more powerful than the voices you strangle today." These were the last words of August Spies at his execution in 1887. Spies and four other innocent men were hung on charges of setting off an explosion at a labor rally in Haymarket Square in Chicago on May 4, 1886. But for the men, known as the Haymarket martyrs, their only crime was leading the fight for the eight-hour day. Socialists celebrate May 1--May Day--to honor their brave struggle. SARAH KNOPP tells their story.

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MAY DAY is the socialist holiday that commemorates the struggle of the 1880s for the eight-hour day, a hard-won right that's still a fantasy to many workers today.

The struggle was born out of the tough working conditions suffered by workers during the rise of U.S. industry in the 1880s. The average workday in some workplaces was between 14 and 18 hours. By 1885, between one and two million workers were unemployed.

"The children grew up sharp and fierce like wolves," one striking worker remembered. Deaths in coal mines and railroads were a regular occurrence. The situation was the worst for African Americans and immigrants.

These conditions fell in sharp contrast to those enjoyed by U.S. bosses. At the time, the richest 1 percent had more than the bottom 50 percent. When one railroad monopolist bought a substitute for his service in the Civil War, he said, "There are plenty of people whose lives are less worthwhile." Another said, "I can hire half the working class to kill the other half."

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THE EIGHT-HOUR day was the result of 20 years of battles--victories and defeats. In fact, in 1886, 19 states had put into effect laws that shortened the workday. But these laws were either made ineffectual by clauses permitting longer days or were unenforced. The key to winning this demand would be for workers to organize for it.

In 1880, unions were relatively weak, with only 3 percent of the workforce organized. The Knights of Labor, founded in 1869, stood in opposition to the elitism of craft unions of the time. The Knights strove to organize workers of all trades and all skill levels around the slogan "An injury to one is an injury to all." Local chapters fought to organize Black and white workers alike, as well as immigrants. This was crucial, as there were some 5.5 million immigrant workers in the U.S. workforce in the 1880s.

Hypocritically, however, the national Knights of Labor leadership was opposed to organizing Chinese immigrants and even lobbied for Chinese immigration control. The national leadership of the Knights of Labor were also against workers striking to win their demands.

However, in many local chapters, members defied this policy and led militant strikes. Chapters led a series of successful strikes in 1885 against the railroads, and by 1886, the Knights of Labor had as many as 1 million members, with some 60,000 Black members. Still, only 10 percent of the workforce were organized into either the Knights or the Federation of Trades and Labor Unions (the precursor of the American Federation of Labor).

Initially, Knights of Labor President Terence Powderly opposed the demand for the eight-hour day as too "radical," but he could do little to quell the tidal wave of the movement. In February 1886, 515 new locals of the Knights of Labor organized themselves. In 1886, the Federation pushed the Knights into helping lead the eight-hour struggle.

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WORKERS TOOK up the fight for the demand not just because of horrible conditions, but also because of raised expectations. The Civil War had involved 186,000 Black soldiers, who expected to be emancipated from slavery in any form. Fifty percent of the Northern workforce fought in the Civil War and believed in the freedom and human dignity that their brothers died for.

Many of these former soldiers became strike leaders. In addition, the socialist ideas among Irish and German workers in the U.S., and the experience of the Paris Commune of 1871 helped to push struggle forward.

Hundreds of thousands of workers around the country mobilized around the demand for an eight-hour day. "Eight-hour shoes" and "eight-hour tobacco" campaigns--like today's anti-sweatshop movement--were launched.

Chicago--with its thriving left wing labor movement--was the center of battle. There, members of the anarchist International Working People's Association like Albert Parsons and August Spies were organizing within the unions and developing a following among workers.

When Parsons was 13 years old, he fought on the Confederate side of the Civil War, but would later publish a Negro-rights newspaper called The Spectator. He moved to Chicago in 1873 and became a member of the Knights of Labor. Spies was the editor of a German-language newspaper, Arbeiter Zeitung, and an eloquent speaker.

In Chicago, workers set the day for a strike for the eight-hour day--May 1. The bosses were also preparing. The Employers' Association of Chicago bought a machine gun. The Chicago Tribune warned, "Every lamppost in Chicago will be decorated with a communistic carcass to prevent incendiarism."

On May 1, 1886, 400,000 workers nationally marched for an eight-hour day. Some 190,000 were on strike. In Chicago, most industries were paralyzed. By May 3, the strike had spread, with stronger sections of workers sending pickets to draw out weaker sections. It became, in the words of some, "the second Declaration of Independence."

The employers went on the attack. At Chicago's McCormick Harvester Works, police brought in 300 scabs against striking workers on May 3. In a confrontation between strikers and police, six workers were shot. In response, a rally was called in Haymarket Square. Parsons and Spies both spoke at the rally, which drew some 3,000 people.

Later, with just a few hundred protesters left, 180 armed police marched into the crowd. Someone--whose identity or motivation is still unknown--threw a bomb into a crowd, killing one police officer, fatally wounding seven and injuring dozens more.

The police, the pulpit and the press went on a reign of terror against socialist and anarchist "conspiracies" and "terrorism." Eight people were indicted, including Spies and Parsons, some who had not even been at the rally.

The trial was a sham. One juror was a relative of a slain policeman. Another stated openly that he was prejudiced. The governor of Illinois would later admit that the evidence was fabricated.

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THEIR DEFENSE campaign became an international solidarity movement. Albert's wife, Lucy Parsons, spoke to over 20,000 people in cities around the world about the show trial that her husband had been put through. But four of the accused, including Parsons and Spies, were eventually executed.

Spies challenged, "If you think that by hanging us you can stamp out the labor movement--the movement from which the downtrodden millions, the millions who toil in want and misery expect salvation--if this is your opinion, then hang us! Here you will tread upon a spark, but there and there, behind you and in front of you, and everywhere, flames blaze up. It is a subterranean fire. You cannot put it out. The ground is on fire upon which you stand."

The eight-hour movement and the Haymarket martyrs did galvanize the international labor movement. Tens of thousands of U.S. workers won the eight-hour demand, and others saw their hours cut back.

Workers in France, Holland, Russia, Italy and Spain took up the demand, and three years later, the International Socialist Congress declared May Day "International Workmen's Day" to press on toward eight hours for all.

It has never been a more relevant holiday. According to the Federal Reserve Board, the top 1 percent of U.S. society now owns more wealth than the bottom 90 percent. As Civil War veteran and Knights of Labor leader Jay Burrows once said, "The twin of this oppression is rebellion."

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